US 2012: The Republican convention gets started – almost

By J Brooks Spector 27 August 2012

With Hurricane Isaac hovering over the Florida Keys – and threatening to deluge the Republican national nominating convention further up the coast in Tampa, Florida – the Republican Party’s leadership decided not to throw caution to the winds and effectively elected to cancel everything on Monday except an initial call to order and then an immediate, temporary adjournment until the weather changes. That is the meteorological weather, rather than the political weather, of course. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The latter – the political weather – is potentially more troubled still. Instead of their initially planned, four-day extravaganza beamed into every home for hours on end by the television networks, the Republicans will now compress their meeting into three days and reshuffle the speakers and events – all in an effort to deliver a coherent story to their party and the nation as a whole – and deliver this in the sharply circumscribed time limits imposed by the networks. But what message will that be, precisely?

The first issue to be confronted will be the achievement of visible party unanimity for whatever the platform committee finally produces as the party’s ostensible roadmap for the campaign and a putative Mitt Romney presidency – with Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as his running-mate-to-be. While the American political system tends, on the whole, to give very little attention to the deep into the weeds details of a party’s platform (in contrast to those all-encompassing governing party manifestos in places like Britain), exceptions do come along. This happens when there are nationally preeminent issues like slavery in the 1850s that gave birth to the Republican Party, or when one segment of the party wants to insist on a major policy shift, such as with growing support for civil rights legislation within the Democratic Party at each of its conventions from 1948 to 1964.

This time around, the Republican convention is going to be called upon to support a platform that, among other things, calls for the effective elimination of the right to abortion, apparently even in the case of rape, incest or imminent threats to the health of the mother. This comes even as the party must also finesse a way to give the polite death wish of an embrace to its renegade Missouri senatorial candidate, Todd Akin.

Further, the platform apparently will also call for opposition to Sha’ria law precedents in American courts (has this actually been threatening to happen anywhere in America, ever?); a proposed return to the gold standard for the national currency; a call for auditing the Federal Reserve (when last noted, the Fed was already part of the government since it was established, its budget is out in the open and its key precepts are public statements); the continued firm denial of statehood to the District of Columbia (the city of Washington) but allowing slacker gun control laws there; precluding assignment of women in combat positions (can this really be a major issue among Americans?); a constitutional amendment effectively making tax increases illegal (nobody loves taxes, but still, never, for anything?); and a brand-spanking new border fence facing Mexico – a two-tiered one at that. Is this the core of things that will attract new voters to support their candidate – or drive away those who remain undecided, or deepen the party’s deficit of support with women?

Moreover, the Republicans must also figure out how to explain the way the vaunted Paul Ryan tax and budget plan will actually work; whose taxes will change if it should ever come to pass; what government programs will shrink; and how his plan will “save” Medicare – as opposed to the Obama administration – even as the Ryan plan makes use of the same savings the Obama administration wants to bring in, such as rolling back hospital reimbursements to enforce greater efficiencies in treatment. Concurrently, they will also need to sort out how the Ryan plan is neither the official platform nor the precise policies Romney is going to support – and what must be discarded from Ryan’s approach so the two men are on the same wavelength. Along the way, they will somehow have to acknowledge that the Ryan plan – even if every assumption within comes fully and completely true – would not lead to the Republican “Valhalla” – or chimera – of a balanced budget until 2030.

Taken together, all of these factors mean that when Romney steps up to the dais on Thursday to give his acceptance speech for the nomination and his vision for a Romney presidency, his key task is to make policy coherence out of this roster of positions. Each of these could conceivably play into Democratic hands as the Obama campaign tries to gain more traction, one interest group at a time, for its own winning strategy.

Or, as the AP summed up the tensions on the day before the convention was originally supposed to start, “A full-blown rupture – such as the one at the 1992 convention, when a defeated candidate declared a national ‘culture war’ – seems unlikely… But even a modest squabble between key party factions might raise concerns in a tight presidential race. It’s hardly surprising that Romney, who’s running mainly on economic issues, is trying to maintain a quiet balance between fiscal and social conservatives. The Republican Party cannot win national elections without an alliance between the two groups.

“Corporate titans know they must hold hands with anti-abortion crusaders to elect politicians who will keep government regulations and taxes low. Evangelicals and other social conservatives realise they must join ranks with business executives – even if they would never mingle at a country club – to elect champions of public prayer, abortion limits and so on.”

Concurrently, Romney will have to use this moment to set out an actual foreign policy agenda that is more than the platitudes and generalities that have been his stock list so far. Even if most voters aren’t paying close attention to foreign affairs this time around, it will still be insufficient to continue with squiggy bromides like: The president leads from behind, bad! The president isn’t tough enough on China, on Syria, on Iran, with Russia, bad! The president wants to leave Afghanistan before the last Taliban fighter has begged for mercy, bad! Israel, good!

If that is all that he still offers in domestic and foreign policy, he runs the risk of being picked apart by the commentariat and Democrats either for being insubstantial or unsuitably untutored – and in simultaneously giving comfort to those in his own party who continue to believe he is still insufficiently supportive of their conservative social agenda items.

The other challenge for Romney, even now, is to begin the task of selling himself to American voters – to construct his own believable narrative, rather than the one that has been constructed for him so far, as a near-tax cheat and an unfeeling rich guy with no sense of how the other half lives. Or, as The Economist noted just this past weekend, “Despite all the factors in Mr Romney’s favour, in short, he will struggle to win the election unless he does a better job of selling himself personally. There are signs that he is beginning to try. His campaign finally began running gauzy biographical advertisements during the Olympics, after loud complaints from Republican strategists that it was leaving it to the Obama campaign to introduce Mr Romney to voters. Having avoided any talk of his religion for months, Mr Romney invited reporters to attend church with him in mid-August.

“Expect much more of that sort of thing at the convention: talk of Mr Romney’s piety; his devotion to his wife and family; his kindness to strangers. The most fungible of candidates will attempt to reinvent himself once again, as a likeable guy. Whether voters will find his latest incarnation any more consistent or credible than the previous ones remains to be seen.”

Lurking out there as well is the possibility the Ron Paul forces may yet attempt to gain some traction on the floor of the convention, beyond a dinner in his honour now planned – but what, exactly, is still up in the air. According to party convention rules, a candidate cannot have his or her name placed in nomination unless the candidate won the delegates of at least five states in primaries or caucuses. While Paul didn’t actually accomplish that feat during the primary campaign, his forces have – then and later – amassed a significant number of committed delegates through caucus manoeuvres and these will somehow need to be accommodated without emotional bloodshed in front of the nation’s television cameras.

Then, too, when Paul Ryan is introduced as the second half of the ticket, his own personal narrative must be rolled out in a way that makes him much more than palatable – it will need to make him attractive to the full swathe of Republicans as well as those still undecided. Do not expect his early political inspiration, Ayn Rand, to figure in this rollout. While it is unlikely Ryan will achieve anything like the initial rollout of Sarah Palin in 2008, he will still have to be more than the budget cutter, benefit cutter-in-chief – he will need to be likeable and believable, and his narrative will have to connect in a visceral way with those who want something more from politics than they are receiving now.

The other challenge for a Romney convention, of course, comes from the Democrats. Over the years it has been more usual practice for the one party to lie low while the other one carries out its convention. This time around, however, President Obama, the vice president and their surrogates and supporters plan a whole series of events in the various battleground states during the Republican convention. These will now be pitched to call attention to what their campaign is convinced are the right issues to appeal to key demographic slices of the electorate – and to highlight Republican obdurateness, obtuseness or tone deafness on to the real interests of voters.

Then there are the sideshows yet to be sorted out. What in the world is Romney’s campaign planning to do with people like Donald Trump, and why are they embracing him with special honours? And how will they manage to pack in everything they want to do if the national television networks only give them about an hour or so a day to do it in? Well, regardless, by Friday we’ll know how well they did with this, and whether or not they managed to reassert what Romney’s team believes is their winning argument – the incumbent president is a nice man who simply is in over his head when it comes to the economy. Or perhaps we’ll know that the Republicans still haven’t overcome Romney’s problem with his Cayman Island cash stash, his taxes, everybody else’s taxes, and the split within their party over such key social conservative issues as immigration and abortion. DM

Read more:

  • (AP) Map locates Tropical Storm Isaac and its projected path for the next five days – Full Image
  • The Republicans walk the planks by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post
  • First Day Canceled, but Republican Show Goes On in the New York Times
  • Romney plays it safe, delays convention start in the AP
  • Mitt Romney’s chances: The changing man in the Economist 

Photo: Republican National Convention stagehand Scott Kiss peels protective plastic off large mirrors as preparations continue for the delayed start of the Republican National Convention in Tampa August 26, 2012.   REUTERS/Jim Bourg


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